Written by Erica Roane
As fun, eclectic and liberal as the spirit of the city of Austin, TX was during SXSW, there was a painful reminder nearby. Less than a mile away from the Austin Convention Center is Travis County Jail, where people of color are still disproportionately incarcerated for cannabis possession. A multibillion-dollar industry controlled predominantly by white men, many of whom had a dominating presence during the Cannabusiness track presented by (white-owned) Leafly.
When The Right Wants to Get High
Back in April of 2018, it was announced that former Speaker of the House John Boehner joined the advisory board of Acreage Holdings, a company that cultivates, processes and dispenses cannabis in 11 U.S. states. Known as a documented prohibitionist of marijuana and an opposer of criminal justice reform during his tenure in Congress, Boehner is now in full support of the federal legalization of marijuana. Even going as far as telling Congress to “get out of the way” during his address.
Along with Boehner, MedMen CEO Adam Bierman also delivered a keynote. Currently valued at $1.6 billion, MedMen has faced allegations of wage theft and racism. The company also has yet to make any significant commitment to funding social equity or justice within the cannabis industry.
Fighting to harness the political power of organizers working at the intersection of the cannabis industry, the Equity First Alliance staged a protest right outside of the Downtown Hilton, where SXSW sessions were held. There were also protests all over Austin, including banners being flown over Interstate 35. Even along Austin’s 6th street, bright orange flyers with the message “No Legalization Without Equity, Justice, and Repair
“This protest is the first step towards unifying our communities to create change from the grassroots level up. We will not rest until we see equity in cannabis and in all levels of leadership in society,” says LaTorie Wallace of the Equity First Alliance and Washington, DC-based cannabis organization We BAKED.
Equally Slicing the Cannabis Pie
According to Marijuana Business Daily, 81% of cannabis business owners and operators are white. Both Boehner and Bierman represent the vast majority of those who are currently profiting from legal marijuana, or looking to profit from the industry. Their vocal support of federal legalization presence at SXSW signifies that that marijuana may be federally legal sooner than and that big money is on the line. But who deserves the profits?
“This is our generations industrial revolution and it’s up to us to ensure it belongs to the people not corporations,” explained Felicia Carbajal of The Social Impact Center. “Our protest at SXSW sends a bold message in support of cannabis equity, justice, and repair.”
As part of their protest, the EFA called for cannabis companies to reinvest 10% of their annual revenue in communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs. For a company like MedMen to commit to this, that would mean $1.6 million going towards supporting affected communities. That alone would help to repair damage communities, create entrepreneurship within cannabis and cultivate a diverse landscape in an industry that is about to be mainstream.